After winning a Super Bowl ring with the Indianapolis Colts, then playing with the Cincinnati Bengals, former University of Minnesota Gopher football player Ben Utecht retired from the NFL when a routine training drill resulted in his fifth documented concussion. Utecht writes a new book chronicling his life as an athlete, how multiple sports-related traumatic brain injuries have resulted in severe memory loss, and how his Christian faith has been the anchor in his life, which continues to keep him strong and grounded as he looks toward an uncertain future.
Through his new book, Counting the Days While My Mind Slips Away: A Love Letter to My Family, Utecht hopes to share the lessons he’s learned about living a life of love, faith, and meaning when you know your memory may have an expiration date. We interviewed Utecht about the lesson’s God has taught him through these injuries on the field, and through life’s temptations off the field.
What inspired you to write this book?
Ben Utecht: When you realize for the first time that your relevance as a human being only resides in what you can remember, then every moment begins to matter more, it has more value. So what changed for me – when I started having memory problems, and some really big long term gaps in my memory – for the first time in my life I began to realize how special the things are that I have in my life. The little things, spending 10 minutes at the end of every day talking and praying with my daughters to the bigger things – every moment becomes more valuable. When these moments in your life become more valuable, it has a major effect on your purpose. You begin to feel like the reasons for your existence matter a whole lot more, because you begin to see the impact that you have in all the areas of your life that typically we take for granted. It really happened through realizing how critical, how vital our memories are to the identity of who I am.
With your identity as a Christ follower, how do you believe your book will help advance the Kingdom of God?
BU: Any time people have the courage to be open about their faith, especially those that may have some type of platform – whether it’s sports or entertainment – I think you provide an example for adolescent, young Christians that can give them courage and supports the Kingdom through encouragement.
For me personally, much of my life has been spent in ministry. I grew up as a pastor’s son, a lot of my speaking is through the lens of ministry, so this gives me an opportunity to speak into people’s lives for the Lord. My whole testimony revolves around surrender, what does it mean to surrender all that you are and all that you have to the Lord and to your faith? So the story that’s woven throughout the book is a guy whose entire football career has been riddled with injury after injury after injury, until finally he faces an injury he can’t win, and that’s the concussions.
There’s a story of surrender through all of it; how the Lord taught me to trust Him, and how the Lord changed me in the area of giving Him complete control. I think He has a powerful message through my story about what it means to die to self, to surrender all, to live in the world but not of the world. There’s a message there that’s really relevant for today.
My goal as a speaker is that this would open the doors that the Lord would be able to really use it, to go out and tell that story, especially in the Church.
Do you feel that you were better prepared for life “after sports,” due to your faith and hope in Jesus?
BU: Absolutely. I believe that I have always managed life transitions more successfully than others in my shoes because of my relationship with Jesus and because of the trust that I have in him. It’s been such a consistent relationship that provided strength for perseverance and wisdom and clarity on how to approach the challenges that we face on a daily basis.
There’s a story in the book of my first major injury in high school, and literally the first person down on the field was my mom, she ran out of the bleachers and sprinted onto the field. My mom told me that she pushed her way through the teammates and pulled her face close to my facemask and looked at me and told me everything was going to be all right, and asked me if I trusted in Jesus? And all I had to do was trust in Jesus. This all happened on a high school football field. The sobering element to the book, is later in the book it is revealed that I don’t remember that incident. That story is used throughout the book; with all the injuries that I faced, it always goes back to that high school field where my mom sprinted out onto the field and encouraged me to trust Jesus.
In an age that we’re living in, and what’s going on in our world, I think that message of surrender and complete trust is an important one. I really struggle to remember a lot of the stories that are in the book, so many of them came from my parents and my wife.
What were some of the challenges of living out your Christian faith in the NFL?
BU: At every stage, high school to college, to the NFL, there were significant challenges and temptations that I faced as a man and as an athlete. I think one of the biggest challenges that athletes face, is the challenge of price, arrogance, and ego. When you get to that level; you’re given a platform where things are just given to you. There’s a privilege there and it’s very easy to allow those things to go to your head. It’s very easy to allow yourself to become so attracted to the things of the world; from material to relationship to fame.
I’ve always been vulnerable about my challenges; I made poor choices in college, I got involved in a scene that was definitely straddling the fence between the world and the Kingdom, and being a believer and a person of faith, but allowing that pride and those temptations to win many of those little battles.
The biggest challenge is probably staying true to who you are and striving to be obedient to the ways Jesus has taught us are best for us. That’s not an easy thing to do, when you step into a world of fame, fortune and power.
For me, coming out of a small town in Minnesota, and stepping onto a major university athletic program, and having a lot of success, and then going from there to the NFL and being on a Super Bowl championship team, the biggest challenge for me has always been that issue of pride.
I was blessed in the NFL to have an amazing wife and be on a team with Tony Dungy and so many strong Christian athletes. It was a huge blessing to be a part of that organization at that time in my life. I learned a lot through the injuries that I face in college, the Lord really used college to refine me and help me grow up a little bit. That’s been a message I’ve tried to give to as many young athletes as possible; is to fight the urge.
I’ve always believed that the Lord used injuries in my life to bring me closer to Him. I often refer to my injuries as my “Paul’s thorn.” Paul was allowed to have that thorn in his side, and Paul said in scripture it was the Lord’s way of teaching him surrender, of always keeping him close.
Counting the Days While My Mind Slips Away will be released on August 23rd, 2016. Learn more at Ben-Utecht.com